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Friday, June 28, 2013

Capture of a Murderer in CHILAS sub-Agency - An episode from British Raj (Also a call to conscience)

I remember how we captured X, wanted for two murders as well as for burglary and housebreaking.
He had slit the throat of a woman one night, from ear to ear, because she had refused to elope with him, and he had shot a rival for the same woman in the back as the latter was prostrate in prayer in a crowded mosque.
I was in my bath one evening when my informer arrived. I threw on a shirt and a pair of slacks. I allowed him to come in. Many people used to come to the bungalow at all, hours of the day and night so this arrival caused no comments.
“I have come to report the theft of some sheep from my village,” he said, and proceeded to give details. As soon as my orderly left the room Z whispered,
“X is spending the night in A,” and then continued his normal conversation.
After about an hour during which I had more visitors, I sent for Muzaffar and the two Indian Officers of the Scouts. I explained the position, gave them my cut and dried plan, listened to suggestions, changed my plan slightly, impressed on them the necessity of secrecy as to our destination, and in half an hour’s time a strong fighting patrol of two platoons was ready. There were two sworn enemies of X in jail who had been arrested on a pretty crime. I took them with me as guides, with a promise of release if the enterprise was successful.
We left Chilas at 9 pm and marched through a pitch black night; a steep descent of about two thousand feet over an almost sheer cliff face; comparatively easy marching up a main valley with a short halt after two hours for a gulp of water from the icy stream and adjustment of equipment; then on and on. Past a village where the watchdogs barked; a stiff climb over a promontory, a drop back to the valley, methodical walking stride after stride. I thought about many things - poetry, music, future plans for Chilas, my ponies, polo, shooting. Eventually we reached the junction where our route forked left up a narrow side alley. I halted the patrol by sending runners out with whispered words of command. I then made platoon commanders call the roll and check their platoons to ensure that no person or equipment had been lost. When “sabachcha”(all’s well) had been reported, I moved on again as we were all perspiring hot from the march, and a bitter wind was blowing down from the snow-bound passes. It was midnight. The next part of the march was as difficult as there was no proper track. Accompanied by the guides, I moved up to lead the advance guard. We tripped over boulder-strewn ground, we sank up to the knees in marshes, we forded the ice-cold stream several times, we ascended alarming precipices, we struggled down the far side, climbing, climbing the whole time till we reached the rendezvous about two miles from the village of A.
It was 4 am. The height was about 10,000 feet. We halted in a hollow which gave a little shelter from the piercing wind. I called in the platoon commanders and ran over the final orders. One and a half platoons were to move forward immediately and quietly occupy the high features and exits surrounding the village. A half platoon, a dozen levies and the guides were to remain with me as the force which would enter the village at dawn and carry out a systematic search. I purposely kept fairly strong rifle power with me as it was possible that X might, have a gang of outlaws with him, who would prefer to contest the issue rather than being ominously led off, to jail. The orders completed, I turned to the platoon commanders.
“Any questions? Right, move.”
They disappeared in the darkness.
Presently I saw ghostly shapes silently moving away through the night and I knew the plan was under way. First light was about 6.15 am and I had purposely left them margin of an hour and three quarters to reach their positions. This time margin is the secret of success on such round-ups. As a junior officer, I had been present on many such operations on the frontier and on nearly every occasion a good plan had miscarried through insufficient time being given to platoons to occupy their positons. The result was that some vital link in the chain surrounding the village was joined before first light, and Fate would always have it that the quarry would loose that particular place to make good his escape. I think the dangerous life led outlaws breeds in them a sixth sense which unwittingly protects them from danger. Outlaws usually move out from the village, in which they have been spending the night, just before the mullah cries the early morning call to prayer at first light.
I then moved my striking force up quietly to a position about half a mile from the village. The weather now cleared, the stars came out and a hard frost set in. It was indescribably cold as we waited. Sentries posted, the rest of us huddled together, pressed up against one another to catch the heat of each others bodies, our hands pressed tight between our thighs. Our clothes, which an hour back had been soaked with perspiration, were now frozen stiff against our skin. I dozed off once or twice.
At last the rosy fingers of a glorious dawn streaked the eastern sky and as soon as it was light enough to see, I signalled my contingent forward with a wave of the hand. It was all very automatic, despite the fact that any moment we might be fired on from the village. We moved forward in extended line and one section of the Scouts immediately occupied the roof of the highest house in the village to give us covering fire if necessary.
The remainder of us took up tactical positions. I then told the levies to order every man, woman, and child to quit their houses and collect in the square in the middle of the village. By using local levies for this task, rather than Scouts, I prevented panic and the danger of a regrettable incident. I then fired a green Very Light which was signal to the troops on the surrounding hills that the search had commenced, and that all was going according to plan. Muzaffar then took one half of the village and I the other and with drawn pistols we carried out a systematic search of every building. The filth, dirt, and smell in the hovels were frightful.
Suddenly there was a “tak - doom” - the sound a rifle makes when fired in the mountains - from the hills to the north of the village. Then a Snider squibbed twice from the same direction. Then a Lee-Enfield again and silence. I handed over my share of the searching to Jemedar Shah Khan and moved out into the open. I called a signaller.
“Flash a lamp up there and ask what’s going on.” The reply flickered back,
“Have captured X.”
“Bring him in.”
He presently arrived escorted by a NCO and a couple of sepoys. He was a typical Chilasi - medium stature, thin, sharp faced with a straggling beard. I must say he didn’t look an almost legendary outlaw but he was our man all right. He was quite undaunted, gave me a cheerful salute, and offered me his hand which I shook as I couldn’t help admiring him in a way.
“Well, you’ve got me at last, Sahib,” he said, “but it wasn’t a fair fight.”
“Why?” I asked.
“In my haste, to escape from the village, when I saw you approaching, I forgot to take my reserve bandoller of ammunition. I then discovered that you had surrounded the village with Scouts but I decided to shoot my way out. I made a dash for the hills but the Scouts opened fire on me. I took up a position and replied but it was then that I realised I had left the bandolier behind. I knew it was hopeless to continue the fight with short supplies of ammunition so I surrendered.”
I then began questioning regarding the whereabouts of his confederates but I knew it was hopeless. Even third degree would not have broken the honour among thieves so I gave it up.
“All right, you’re for it now, laddie. You’d better get some food inside you, as you’ve got twenty-four mile march in front of you and a nice hard bed on the cement floor of the Chilas jail at the end.”
He grinned.
I snapped a pair of handcuffs on him, attached the chain to a Scout’s belt, and he was led off.
The search was now complete with no more to show than X’s forgotten bandolier. He later told me to keep it as a souvenir. I did. I then fired two green Very Lights in succession as the signal to the platoons on the surrounding hills to dose on the village and carefully search the intervening ground on the way. They eventually arrived with the information that X had been spending the night in this village for at least a week. I allowed the men half an hour to rest and eat their haversack rations. I ate a hard-boiled egg, some dried fruit and walnuts, and smoked a cigarette. It was a bracing morning with the bright sunshine from a blue sky gradually thawing the hard frost of the night.

Before leaving I called the village headman and summarily dismissed him from his appointment for harbouring an outlaw and failing to report the presence of an outlaw in his village.